As we enter the third year of the Trump presidency, many thoughtful Americans and students of government are asking if our democracy is in danger.
Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are the authors of a recent book, How Democracies Die. They say that since Trump became president, they have observed politicians behaving in ways that are unprecedented in the United States, and which they recognize as having been precursors of democratic crises and breakdowns in other countries. Levitsky and Ziblatt say, as do many Americans, that they feel dread and try to reassure themselves that things cannot really be that bad in America today.
Many people think that democracies die only at the hands of armed soldiers with guns. It is true that during the Cold War, coups d’etat accounted for about three of every four democratic breakdowns.
But since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected leaders themselves. Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in countries such as Venezuela, Russia, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines.
The electoral road to a democratic breakdown can be dangerously deceptive and, for many, imperceptible.
Constitutions remain in place, people still vote, and there is no armed insurrection in the streets.
The problems for democracy in America today are when American politicians view their rivals as enemies, and when the president attacks and intimidates the free press, talks about fake news and alternative facts, and expresses a desire to use the military within our borders. Will Trump accept the results if he’s defeated in the 2020 election?
Ziblatt and Levitsky recognize that our Constitution has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and other crises, but they are less certain that it will survive Donald Trump.